Empellon Al Pastor, Alex Stupak's ode to corn tortillas filled with spit-roasted pork and pineapple, swung open its doors at 5:49 p.m. on Saturday. And by 7 p.m. it was a packed house, with The Orwells piping through the sound system, bartenders slinging $10 mezcal tonics, and prospective diners lining up for $4 tacos served on paper plates. This is all "most excellent," as Bill & Ted would say.
Funny how the culinary landscape has shifted. A decade ago, as New York barreled through a proper Gilded Age, the most heralded restaurant openings, like Masa and Per Se, were the fanciest and most expensive openings, while the more accessible start-ups like Momofuku Noodle Bar were the underdogs.
But the opposite seems to be true in our post-recession economy. New restaurants at the ultra-high-end prompt questions of "will they succeed," as the culinary cognoscenti instead rally around cheaper venues like the affordable Al Pastor as among of the biggest openings of the year. Just to put that in perspective: Stupak's Alphabet City taco hut is set in an old bar where Slayer used to play on the jukebox. And the design centerpiece appears to be a statue of a Rat Satan.
And guess what? Stupak delivered — and delivered well — during my "opening hour" visit to Al Pastor. Briefly: The pork tacos show the potential for quintessential status down the road, while the steak taco is already an instant classic.
The room is designed to get everyone in and out in fast — you queue up, order, pay, and then a server ferries the food to your table in about five minutes. You can be in and out in 15 minutes for about $25 per person, which means Al Pastor is easily Stupak's cheapest restaurant. At his Empellon Taqueria in the West Village, two tacos alone (the minimum) will cost anywhere from $10 to $27, while at Empellon Cocina in the East Village, you'll pay $12 for tacos or up to $36 for larger entrees.
Al Pastor, by contrast, more than halves the entry-level price to $4 by allowing single taco orders. So those who (wrongly) assert that Mexican food's humble origins requires dirt cheap prices no longer have a valid argument against Empellon's high-minded creations.
Stupak, clad in black gloves, uses a long knife to shave gyro-like strips of the charred, chili-rubbed pork off a rotating spit and into a tortilla, garnishing the affair with a single slice of pineapple. The shavings are thicker and porkier than at, say, the heralded Taco Mix in East Harlem, where the more neutrally-flavored swine is cut so thinly and rubbed with so many chiles that it looks like spiced deli ham cut over an expensive mandoline. Here in the East Village, the flavor of the pig is slightly deeper, slightly nuttier, slightly richer, with a judicious application of salsas adding a just a whisper of heat.
Another trademark of the (slightly over-loaded) Al Pastor taco is the single, exceedingly thin tortilla (instead of the more common double wrap), with a springy texture and maize flavor that's clean and clear but not aggressive. The result is that the excellent corn tortillas, just like the flour-based versions at his other restaurants, play second fiddle to the fillings, making the al pastor what my dining companion (Eater Senior Editor Nick Solares) called a real "meat lover's taco," with just enough pineapple to keep the richness in check. Stupak should add just a hint of salt, and subtract maybe a strip or so of pork from the taco and he'll have something grand.
Other observations: The juicy chicken tacos were a BUY. So were the mushroom tacos, with a tangy, Russian-like herbaceousness. By contrast, the mushy side of rice was a SELL, as was the single large-format dish, a $20 plate of beef barbacoa that was a study in under-rendered fat.
For now, Al Pastor's best dish is the steak taco, a $4 stew that boasts the same profound beefiness as a $48 prime rib cap. It's like a Texas-style chopped beef sandwich fortified with a British au jus and all served in a Mexican tortilla. It is, without question, one of the city's finest tacos.
Al Pastor is a strong entry into New York's increasingly competitive environment for Mexican fare
Conclusion: Al Pastor is a strong entry into New York's increasingly competitive environment for Mexican fare — and masa! Not too far away, Danny Bowien's Mission Cantina is still making fine corn tortillas, albeit very average tacos. And Enrique Olvera's Cosme, set to open later this month, will be another serious contender, serving what will apparently be "single origin" tortillas.
Perhaps 10 years from we'll be asking how many ambitious Mexican spots the New York market can bear. Wouldn't that be a good problem to have?
Alex Stupak sure knows how to make a taco. His newly opened Empellon Al Pastor, a former sushi bar at the corner of St. Marks and Avenue A, specializes in them, as do his two other downtown dining establishments. A group of friends — including fellow critic Ryan Sutton and me — descended on the place its opening night out of extreme curiosity, and also to savor what all the hoopla had been about. Needless to say, this isn't a review, but a series of first impressions.
The namesake al pastor ("shepherd style") taco is made with unctuous shreds of flavorful pork piled into a corn tortilla, which then lies flat on the white-paper plate as if quailing before your attack. The pork has been enhanced in the Mexican fashion with chopped onions and cilantro, and three strong salsas squiggle on top. Delicious! A shard of pineapple betokens the twirling cylinder at the end of the room — porcine fragments bound together with a whole pineapple on top in a style of preparation brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the 1920s. The fruit juices dripping down tenderize and sweeten the meat.
The vaunted homemade tortillas are not all that different from those made from white corn in factories surrounding Flushing Avenue in Bushwick, though perhaps a bit more crumbly and rustic. Of the six tacos offered ($4 each), my hands-down favorite was the one featuring potatoes and red chorizo — salty and starchy. I could gobble a pair every day for breakfast. The vegetable taco, which varies by day, was similarly dope: sweet squash with pumpkinseeds scattered here and there for a welcome crunch. I didn't much like the mushroom taco, which was slippery without being particularly flavorful, while the steak-and-caramelized onion model lacked the excitement of the al pastor.
The guacamole and chips proved the typical product, fresh tasting and not fussed with. But the "spicy pickled cabbage" was just a dull slaw, while the achiote rice —dotted with little rounds of chicken sausage that might have come from a Vienna sausages can — was not the expected bright yellow color, but a dull beige. Some at our table relished the white beans cooked with greens, while others were indifferent. Short rib barbacoa was the only thing on the food menu that wasn't $4, substituting a modest-size beef rib for the usual goat or lamb, then steaming it, slathered with sauce, in a banana leaf. Presented with six tortillas, it was tasty but too expensive at $20, given that most of the entrée is bone. If a side were thrown in to make a complete meal, it wouldn't be a bad deal.
Occupying only one panel of a six-panel menu, the food seems almost an afterthought.
Occupying only one panel of a six-panel menu, the food seems almost an afterthought. The balance of that document is devoted to booze, and the impression might descend on you as you quaff your second or third mixed drink or draft beer is that Empellon Al Pastor's really a bar masquerading as a restaurant, and the way service is set up confirms it. You order food from a counter at the rear and are given a number on a metal pole that you then put on your table after you've seated yourself, awaiting your food. Meanwhile, you go to the bar and order a drink. When the runner brings the food, he offers to get you another drink. This is the one occasion when you get actual service — and it's alcohol.
Nevertheless, the booze is good. There are lists of typical margaritas; atypical margaritas; draft and bottled beers; micheladas (enhanced beers), one of which features yuzu, white miso, and togarashi salt; and beverages collectively called highballs that include the wonderful agave root beer ($10), which involves something called root liqueur; plus dozens upon dozens of straight tequila and mezal shots, a comparative bargain at $5 to $9. If you're drinking your dinner, who really needs tacos?
Indeed, as the evening wore on, the number of tables with food on them declined drastically, and most patrons were simply enjoying more drinks. Befitting, I suppose, an opening night party for a new restaurant. So let's call Empellon Al Pastor an East Village bar with some great bar food.
One last point. Depending on your frame of mind, the décor may seem poignantly atmospheric or sinister and repulsive. A vast ceiling mural featuring a shrouded Death and piles of money seems inspired by narcoterrorism, while a rat in a niche flaunts human female breasts. Just the thing to contemplate while downing your taco al pastor!
Empellon Al Pastor: 132 St. Marks Place (at Avenue A), New York, NY
Story: Robert Sietsema & Ryan Sutton
Photos: Nick Solares